LARGO, Fla. — Parkinson's disease is the second most common neurodegenerative condition in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

What You Need To Know

  • April is Parkinson's Awareness Month

  • The Parkinson's Foundation's focus this year is on the future of the disease

  • Patients around the nation, including at the Palms of Largo, are working to improve their futures through physical therapies like Rock Steady Boxing

  • The head of USF Health's Dept. of Neurology said treatment of Parkinson's symptoms have come a long way through the years, and there's hope more advancements may be on the horizon

April is Parkinson's Awareness Month. This year, the focus from the Parkinson's Foundation is on the future of the disease, including when it comes to patients navigating their own journey with PD. 

"I think one of the most important things about Parkinson's is fighting the fight," Parkinson's patient Sherry Dawkins told Spectrum News. "Don't give up and don't feel alone."

Dawkins, 67, fights that fight every day. But three days a week, for an hour and a half at a time, she trains. "I'm thinking about how well I can do it, you know? And that I'm happy that I can do it," Dawkins said between landing punches and kicks on a punching bag.

She's happy because those are skills her opponent wants to knock out. "It's like I'm fighting Parkinson's," Dawkins said as she continued her assault.

Dawkins was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2019 after noticing a tremor in her hand. That same year, she began taking Rock Steady Boxing classes at the Palms of Largo. The exercises are rooted in boxing and help with walking, balance, posture, all of which can be affected by Parkinson's.

Leah Einboden, Rock Steady program director at the Palms of Largo, said the nationwide program was developed fairly recently, in 2006. Einboden said the Palms of Largo program was the first Florida affiliate to be trained back in 2015. "It's been found to be neuronally protective," Einboden said. "[It] Really works on challenging them, and forced, intense exercise is what they need to help combat their Parkinson's symptoms."

Dr. Theresa Zesiewicz, director of clinical research for USF Health's Dept. of Neurology, said physical therapies like Rock Steady are just one way care for Parkinson's patients has improved.

"In the old days, 20, 30 years ago, Parkinson's disease is due to lack of dopamine, so the medication that we had to treat Parkinson's disease was dopamine," Zesiewicz said.

Zesiewicz said different types of medications have been developed since, and new procedures, like deep brain stimulation and focused ultrasound, can also alleviate symptoms. Looking to the future, Zesiewicz said researchers are trying to find a way to reduce alpha-synuclein, a brain protein linked to Parkinson's, and to diagnose the disease before symptoms show up.

"We think that there's a ten-to-twenty year prodrome before patients even have the symptoms of Parkinson's disease," Zesiewicz said. "So, the earlier we can diagnose these patients, the earlier we can give them neuroprotective treatments for Parkinson's."

Until then, patients like Dawkins will keep fighting.

"The more I keep doing it, the better I'll be able to do it in the future," Dawkins said of Rock Steady. 

You can learn more about Parkinson's disease and resources by visiting the Parkinson Foundation's website.